It has almost as many personalities as it has people: conservatives dubbed it "The People's Republic," a local wit called it "the home of the newly wed and the nearly dead," but the city motto is official: "Fortunate People in a Fortunate City."
Perched on the edge of the continent, the place "Where the Mountains Meet the Sea," as the song said, has the appeal of a middle-class town that suddenly found itself the fabled sporting ground of the rich and/or heavily equitied.
When its first lots were being auctioned, it was as if the sea itself was being sold. The high-flown 1875 real estate ads proclaimed a sale of "the Pacific Ocean, draped with a sky of scarlet and gold; we will sell a bay filled with white-winged ships."
By the 1890s, railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington quietly bought up waterfront land for the region's first deep harbor. He built a mile-long Long Wharf, the pleasure and business precursor of the fabled Santa Monica Pier (where "The Sting" and other movies and TV series were filmed.)
The years-long "Great Free Harbor Fight" pitted Los Angeles against the hated Huntington. Although Huntington lost the harbor, Santa Monica never lost its allure. Trolleys brought people for a day at the beach or a stay at the elaborate four-story Arcadia Hotel, where Loews Hotel stands today. Movie stars owned beach houses more ornate than palaces, like Marion Davies' home, now the decaying former Sand and Sea Club known simply as 415 PCH.
But not all was sunshine and health: for a time, downtown was so tough--saloons and park benches "strewn with unsavory characters"--that men were warned to blindfold their women while passing through. A well-to-do citizen offered to pay the city what it would lose in licensing fees, and Santa Monica shed its frontier reputation.
Some thrill seekers went skyward instead. By the 1920s, barnstorming pilots were landing in a barley field they called Clover Field, putting Santa Monica on aviation's map and inaugurating it as the future home of Douglas Aircraft.
In 1924, eight airmen took off from Clover Field in four open-cockpit Douglas World Cruisers, circling the globe for the first time. The airport became one of the nation's busiest single-runway airports, and Donald Douglas' firm would be the city's biggest employer.
Others found their fun offshore, outside the three-mile limit. During the 1930s, gamblers were enticed aboard the most lavish and lucrative of the floating casinos, the Rex.
The war sobered the mood, as defense workers moved in by the thousands. On Feb. 25, 1942, Santa Monicans huddled behind blackout curtains in the Great L.A. Air Raid, when antiaircraft batteries fired blindly at an unknown object reported over Santa Monica Bay. No enemy aircraft were sighted, let alone downed.
In 1959, the Santa Monica Freeway halved the town, and the city plowed under Muscle Beach, where Jack La Lanne and Steve (Hercules) Reeves had flexed their pecs. Beauty and muscle pageants drew thousands until four weightlifters were arrested for rape.
Recently, Santa Monica split metaphorically over handling its many homeless. For years they were welcome in parks, fed on the City Hall lawn. Urban frictions have ended the city's trademark serve-all-comers meal programs and instituted anti-loitering laws.
But the pier, with its $15-million face-lift, an aquarium beneath the newly restored carousel, the Pacific Park fun zone--heir to the Pacific Ocean Park amusement park on a neighboring pier--and the Third Street Promenade still pack in rollerbladers, cyclists and strollers to an urban experience on the water's edge.
By the Numbers
Incorporated: Nov.30, 1886
Square miles: 8
Number of city parks: 9
City employees: 1,400 fulltime; 500 part time
1996-97 general fund operating budget: 111 million (capital & restricted funds excluded)
Black / Other: 5%
Average household size: 2
Median age: 38
MONEY AND WORK
Median household income: $35,997
Median household income / L.A. County: $34,965
Median home value: $560,700
Employed (16 and older): 52,928
Percentage of women employed: 62%
Percentage of men employed: 78%
Married couple families with children: 12%
Married couple families with no children: 19%
Other types of families: 10%
Nonfamily households: 59%
Total stores: 1,556
Total employees: 15,095
Annual sales: $1.8 billion
\o7 Source: Claritas Inc. retail figures are for 1995. All other figures are for 1990. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.\f7